Safety For the Older Driver: Is Skills Training the Answer?

MAY 3, 2004 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 44

Elder Law Issues addressed concerns relating to older drivers in two issues published in October, 2002 (“What Can Be Done About Driving Skills As We Age?” and “Dealing With Impaired Driving Skills in Aging Family Members“). Since then, much media attention has been focused on aging drivers, principally due to the tragedy caused by Californian George Weller, 87. In July, 2003, ten people died at a Santa Monica farmer’s market when Mr. Weller accelerated rather than braking at the crowd’s edge. In January, 2004, Mr. Weller was indicted on 10 counts of manslaughter.

In the last month discouraging news arrived with results of a study indicating that driver education programs may fail to make older drivers with functional impairments safer or prevent accidents. The study is reported in the April, 2004, American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D., MSPH, (Professor and Director of the Clinical Research Unit, Dept. of Opthalmology, University of Alabama, Birmingham) principal researcher for the study, examined drivers with certain visual impairments for a two-year period after they had high-quality skills training.

In a nutshell, Dr. Owsley was unable to find that the education programs in her study actually enhanced the older drivers’ skills. No significant crash reductions per mile driven were seen in those who participated in the educational programs as compared with other drivers of the same age. Owsley described the education programs used in her study as the “Cadillac” version of driver skills training because each study participant had one-on-one attention and the programs were tailored to meet participants’ individual needs. Dr. Owsley suggests that the benefits of driver education programs lie in the behavioral changes many older drivers make when made aware of driving challenges. These include reducing driving time, avoiding difficult situations (such as routes with many left turns and multiple turn-lanes, or trips in bad weather) and better self-monitoring of driving skills.

Unfortunately, many older drivers also have chronic diseases that may affect driving. Dr. Owsley says that older drivers “need to make sure that they get the best medical care to reduce the impact that their functional problems have on their driving. They want to go to a driving fitness clinic where a certified driving rehabilitation specialist can evaluate their potential risk and safety on the road.”

The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists boasts 550 members nationwide. A half dozen Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists practice in Arizona, and their contact information appears on the organization’s website.

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